20 Years Ago: Nine Inch Nails Unleash ‘The Fragile’
How do you deal with the success of something as big as Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral? If you're Trent Reznor, you find other projects and let it die down a bit before you return. That's exactly what happened as Reznor spent time producing Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar album and took his time before releasing what would be the epic double album, The Fragile.
"I was putting off doing this record for a number of reasons," Reznor told Rolling Stone. "Some conscious, some subconscious. It's not like had had this big, long career where I could become tired of this, but I was disillusioned." During the period after The Downward Spiral, Reznor went through a big of emotional and mental collapse. "It [was like] New Year's Eve every single day," the singer told Ransom Fellowship. "I had everything I wanted, and I wasn't feeling good about it."
Eventually, Reznor got away from it all, heading to a house in Big Sur, Calif., looking for some solitude. "It just took me time to sit down and change my head and my life around. I had to slap myself in the face: 'If you want to kill yourself, do it, save everybody the f---ing hassle or get your s--t together.'" He adds, "I thought Big Sur would be a nice break. It was sheer terror -- isolation on the side of a mountain, an hour from the nearest grocery store. I really didn't want to be there by myself. I wasn't prepared for it." But by year's end, the vocalist had what he called "an abstract blob" of a record.
Needing help with direction, he turned to producing icon Bob Ezrin, who flew to New Orleans to meet with Reznor for a week in which they began to suss out several different sequences for the album. "The most important thing about a continuous listening experience is defining the four corners of the album first -- the beginnings and ending of the first and second acts -- while staying true to the journey," said Ezrin. "It was important to fail two or three times. The last failure opened up so many doors that it fell into place in a matter of hours."
With plenty of time between The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, Reznor evolved the band's sound. Stepping away from the distorted industrial sounds, in their place were soundscapes, electronic beats and ambient noise. It was an attempt to break free of the norm at the time. The singer told The Los Angeles Times, "I just don't feel much depth out there. I think anything that is dangerous and exciting about rock music has moved over to rap or to hip-hop." He added, "I wanted this album to sound like there was something inherently flawed in the situation, like someone struggling to put the pieces together. Downward Spiral was about peeling off layers and arrival at a naked, ugly end. This album starts at the end, then attempts to create order from chaos, but never reaches the goal. It's probably a bleaker album because it arrives back where it starts -- with the same emotion."
Also of note during the production was the change in the lineup of musicians taking part. Charlie Clouser was around for programming and synth work. Danny Lohner lent a hand with drums, synths and guitar, and Jerome Dillon replaced longtime Reznor collaborator Chris Vrenna behind the drum kit. Of Dillon's addition, the singer stated, "The music sounds better than it did at the height of when we had our s--t together before. Our drummer Jerome Dillon is really changing the sound." The disc also featured guest turns by such name artists as Adrian Belew, Page Hamilton and Bill Rieflin.
On Sept. 21, 1999, five-plus years after the release of The Downward Spiral, The Fragile arrived. Though not the commercial success of its predecessor, the album did debut at No. 1 and was certified double platinum. It also yielded four singles. The first was "The Day the World Went Away," a haunting slow build of a track utilizing piano, but that was conspicuously free of drums. The track would grow on listeners, as it became the band's first Top 40 hit, peaking at No. 17.
"We're in This Together" was released shortly after the album arrived in stores. The song was influenced by David Bowie's "Heroes," and the Thin White Duke received a special credit in the album's liner notes. Musically, the track was harsher and darker than it's predecessor. The chorus, filled with Reznor's trademark aggressiveness, had listeners cranking up the volume to rock out. The song would climb to No. 11 on the Modern Rock chart and No. 21 at Mainstream Rock, becoming the most popular track off the album in both formats.
"Into the Void" became the third single in January of 2000. The track, had a little bit more of the groove that fans fell in love with dating back to "Closer," with Reznor giving listeners something they could move to. Like "We're in This Together" before it, "Into the Void" topped out at No. 11 on the Modern Rock Chart. However, the song did earn a Best Male Rock Vocal Performance Grammy nomination in 2001.
The fourth and final single from the disc was "Starf--ckers Inc.," a frenzied, chaotic hard-rocking track for the band that included breakbeats and a more metal guitar feel. The song was eventually nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy in 2000. The lyrics were rumored to have been a shot at Marilyn Manson after the pair had a falling out, but Manson later made a surprise cameo in the video for the track. Other targets in the clip included Courtney Love who had famously warred with Manson on their "Beautiful Monsters" tour.
Though not necessarily the most commercial disc, the two-disc effort has received greater critical acclaim over time. Reznor himself told the New York Times, "The Fragile is weird because when it came out it felt like everyone hated it to me, and now it feels like it's everyone's favorite album, fan-wise." He added, "I think, in hindsight, I should have had The Fragile two single records, much like Radiohead did with Kid A and Amnesiac, recorded at once, broken into two digestible chunks. Hey, it is what it is." And what it was in the end was a creative statement by an artist following his muse and attempting to break free from the norms of the time.
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